I hope I'll be indulged if I hew to a journalistic convention that, for reasons that remain obscure to me, has fallen into disfavor in recent years, and begin by making a disclosure. The writer and filmmaker Dan Sallitt and I are friendly acquaintances. We run in a couple of the same social circles and hence see each other at parties as well as at some screenings. We have "done" karaoke together, once.
That said, we're not "close." There's quite a bit I don't know about him. Until recently, for instance, I was unaware that he's also a musician, and plays in a band, which information I found moderately irritating, as I had been hoping to "corner" the "market" in film-critic-types-who-also-have-bands. While I admire Sallitt's writing on film, we differ in taste more than a bit, and I frankly find myself exasperated by certain of his critical enthusiasms.
Sallitt has made three feature films since the late '90s; his latest, The Unspeakable Act, plays in New York as part of BAM's CinemaFest on Sunday, June 24. I think it's an absolutely remarkable film, one of the best of the year so far, and if you're around, you should definitely see it. I'm hoping it gets wider distribution, because, not to be crass or anything, I think it more than establishes Dan's bonafides in terms of deseving a wider audience, funding for more films, and all that sort of thing. If you're already familiar with Dan's films, or even if you aren't, this lengthy "conversation" at MUBI is worth reading; and below are some of my observations on Dan's work so far.
Made in 1998, Sallitt's first feature, Honeymoon, is clearly the work of a real film artist, albeit one who is testing his fully-formed voice against his technical facility. Let me talk about its strengths first. The movie tells an unusual New York story; Michael and Mimi (Dylan McCormack and Edith Meeks, seen above) longtime friends who toil in mid-level positions in publishing, are best friends who impulsively decide to marry without, not to be crude or anything, having established whether they can get it up for each other. One of Sallitt's immediately visible strengths as a writer and director of actors is his ability to comprehensively portray an actual social type (one that was more plentiful in 1998 New York than it is in 2012, admittedly): what I used to refer to as the Too-Brilliant-Copy-Editor, e.g., the genuinely gifted and genuinely sensitive and aesthetically attuned soul that never breaks through what you might want to call a glass ceiling for reasons that are entirely their own and are not unrelated to a certain social awkwardness. This social sect is the only one, I believe that could contain non-religiously committed individuals who would marry without even getting a sense of what their sex life could be.
The resultant spectacle of two painfully smart people tormenting themselves and each other in the most civilized way possible has its farcical aspects, naturally, but Sallitt doesn't caricature his characters, and many of the scenes operate on a low-frequency but definitely palpable level of emotional pain and physical mortification that's incredibly absorbing even while largely cringe-inducing. There’s a knife-edge on which the performances teeter between naturalistic and weirdly clumsy, and at times this actually messes with the suspension of disbelief you might need to fully invest in the action. That said, the two leads are remarkable, particularly Meeks, a woman who's not necessarily conventionally attractive and yet is able to exude, in performance, a demanding, even querulous sexuality that's seemingly at odds with her intellect and politesse and preferred mode of living.
Sallitt's shooting and editing style here is surface-plain but, as with one of his cinematic heroes Eric Rohmer, deceptively canny, but total control occasionally eludes him; now and again in a shot you get the feeling of the performers having a too-acute awareness of the camera, holding themselves back so as not to get too close to it, and so on. None of this finally compromises the film's cumulative power, which it accrues by continuously threatening to send one of its characters into a Pialat-style rage blowout but...well, I don't want to spoil it for you. You can acquire the movie for viewing in various formats/platforms at Dan's home page.
Dan's second film, All The Ships At Sea, made in 2004, displays more directorial assurance from its very first, still shot. It also displays Sallitt's admirable powers of compression perhaps to a fault, as 64 minutes is a pretty unusual length for a feature film. This is a fully-realized work though, once again featuring the extraordinary Meeks in a lead role. She plays a woman recently escaped, or expelled, from a religious cult, and the attempt of her Catholic theologian sister (Strawn Bovee, in the still above), to reconnect with her, and help her put her life back together.
In a sense this picture harks back to Rohmer's 1969 My Night At Maud's, a feature-length chat about religious philosophy disguised as a sex comedy. Although Ships has neither the sex nor (for the most part) the comedy (there is a fair amount of mordant humor, as when a character you don't expect this kind of language from says "Ohio, Iowa, what the fuck's the difference?"). "We believe that a lot of the spiritual turmoil in the world is happening for a reason," Meeks' Virginia tries to explain to her sister Evelyn. Eventually we come to understand that at issue here is not belief or difference of belief or lack thereof of any of the above but plain and horrific disconnection, exemplified in the simple-as-death confidence Virginia confides to Evelyn about a childhood treehouse: "No one knew about it. I built it myself." Nevertheless, Sallitt gets a lot of implied spookiness out of the shadow of the cult that hovers over Virginia. I believe it is a testimony to Dan's equanimity as a person that he has not even considered, as far as I know, taking a polo mallet to the kneecaps of the makers of Martha Marcy May Marlene.
The Unspeakable Act is a fully realized—sure, I'll say it—masterwork, an emotionally wrenching character study that puts its uncomfortable truths forward without recourse to conventional psychology. That is, the powerful attraction super-precocious teen Jackie (Tallie Medel) feels for her older brother, the equally brilliant but possibly more well-adjusted and socially accomplished Matthew, doesn't "make sense," yet makes total sense in the context Sallitt creates for it. And once again, that context has its roots in an actual (or is it "probably actual"?) social milieu, the shabby-genteel bohemian Brooklyn that's been priced out of the Heights and whose diaspora, such as it is, extends to the likes of Ditmas Park, where the film was shot.
Using a variety of dislocation techniques (some of which are discussed at length in Sallitt's talk with Keller), the movie brings us uncomfortably into Jackie's world, and her bedrock obsession, to the point that, fifteen minutes in, when Jackie admits "I've never slept with anyone," the sigh of relief from the viewer is apt to be seismically palpable. Once what's at stake is laid on the table, Sallitt deploys his characters in what I can only describe as alchemical chess moves. Particularly upside-the-head-smacking is how we're shown the way that the amiable and ostensibly sane Matthew actually gets off on the attentions of Jackie. When a therapist enters the picture (she is played, beautifully, by Caroline Luft, who, I should disclose, is a friend of myself and my wife's, albeit one we don't see as often as we would like; in fact, I did not recognize her on my first viewing of the film), that character gets to play not-quite-irresistable force to Jackie's seemingly immovable object. Rarely does cinema treat us to the spectacle of a person inflicting what can only be called metaphysical damage to him or her self (despite its topic, the last thing Sallitt is making here is a "social problem" picture). One of the wonders of Tallie Medel's performance, besides the way she uses her slightly-sexually-ambiguous physicality, is how she documents that damage as vividly as if she were actually physically cutting into herself, even as Jackie the character believes she's giving nothing away that she doesn't want to.
The movie is dedicated to Rohmer, but it is entirely a Dan Sallitt work. I hope his next film comes sooner than six to eight years from now.